DVD Picks & Passes

Bicycle Thieves (1948) - Pick

Green for Danger (1946) - Pick

Winner of a special Oscar, a Vatican-list film in the “Values” category, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (or The Bicycle Thief, as it’s usually known in the United States) is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.

Although the film was previously available on DVD from Image Entertainment, this week’s lavish Criterion DVD edition offers a new high-definition restoration with superior image quality as well as improved English subtitles, not to mention a generous assortment of extras.

A defining landmark of Italian neorealism and a haunting fable of want and desperation, the film tells a story of such simplicity and power that one could sum up the key events in a single sentence — and someone who had never seen the film might read the sentence and remember the premise forever.

The story begins at a government unemployment office where Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) waits, along with dozens of other men, for work opportunities. From there the story proceeds inevitably to its heartbreaking resolution, if one can use that word where nothing has been resolved. Extras include optional English dubbing, interviews (including two with De Sica collaborators), a feature on Italian neorealism and a 75-page booklet including new and old essays on the film and its director.

Also from Criterion this week, and new to U.S. DVD, Sidney Gilliat’s Green for Danger is an overlooked gem that transplants the trappings of a droll British murder mystery in an unexpected World War II context, with Nazi air raids and an emergency wartime hospital set up in a rural manor home outside London. Alistair Sim, forever remembered as the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge, gives a witty, acerbic performance as the unnervingly mischievous Scotland Yard investigator Inspector Cockrill, called to the hospital after a seemingly accidental death is followed by a clearly unnatural one.

Not until Cockrill’s appearance is it entirely clear that the film is at once a whodunit and also a sendup of the genre. Blithely self-satisfied, wryly cold-blooded, Cockrill (the character, not just the actor Sim) clearly relishes the part of the blasé, take-charge investigator putting everyone on edge with his blunt observations about potential suspects, motives and opportunities.

Plot twists can be contrived or far-fetched, but the point isn’t the plot or even the solution to the mystery. Rather, the film’s pleasures are in the specificity of its period detail and style, in its subtle subversion of the detective story conventions, and in Sim’s performance and understated voiceover narration. Extras include an in-depth commentary by film historian Bruce Eder and an interview with cultural historian Geoffrey O’Brien, who also contributes an essay on the film to the liner notes. Writer-director Gilliat adds some thoughts on the film to the liner notes.

Content advisory: Bicycle Thieves: Some crass references; a subplot involving attempted divination. Subtitles. Teens and up. Green for Danger: Restrained menacing situations; a brief fisticuff; romantic complications. Teens and up.